There are two very striking reasons that compel me to discuss several features and recommendations of the recently announced National Education Policy, or NEP 2020, by the Narendra Modi government. While one of them is a personal success story, the other is an academic puzzle in the form of agencies like UGC that have for long been the bane of Indian universities. Let’s start with the latter one.
As I understand, nearly all the features of the NEP 2020 in the context of higher education could have easily been introduced by any central university without a push from the government. These universities have had all the powers and regulatory bandwidth to implement the policy recommendations as suggested under the NEP ‘umbrella’.
In such a scenario, it’s worth examining why this did not happen and what it portends for India’s education system.
The failure of UGC
There are two compelling factors why Indian universities couldn’t do what a national policy is now trying to achieve. The first is the dark shadow cast by agencies such as the University Grants Commission (UGC), which deter any experimentation.
Over the years, the UGC has acquired all kinds of strange and counterproductive powers that often run against the grain of the Acts and Statutes of a university. These actions hamper free thinking in universities, and there is micromanagement to the extreme. We need not look any further than the issue of how universities will handle examinations during the ongoing coronavirus pandemic. If our universities do not have the requisite wisdom and wherewithal to deal with such straightforward situations, how will they impart any useful knowledge to their students? The matter has gone to the ridiculous length of being taken up by the Supreme Court of India.
Contrast this with the ways adopted by the highly regarded universities of the West, which have often been cited in the debates engendered by the NEP. All prominent universities have taken decisions within the confines of their own realm and environment. So why have Indian universities not been able to do so?
Of course, the NEP 2020 has warranted the creation of an overarching and solitary agency — the National Higher Education Regulatory Council (NHERC) — which carries the spirit with which the UGC was initially created. But it also carries much more in terms of its ambit as the new regulatory body. If it stays the way it has been envisioned, a lot of good will flow through the actions of the agency. If it falters the way the UGC has over the past decades, the NHERC can cause enormous damage. Thus, it is incumbent on the government of the day to ensure that institutions do not degenerate over time. However, in the current context, it shall be unfair to lay the sole blame for the sorry state of affairs on the doorstep of the UGC.
The failure of universities
A great deal of responsibility also lies with India’s universities and with those who head them. I have repeatedly underscored the need to put in place processes and measures that ensure the selection of only high-quality leadership for our universities. If we do not do this, then no amount of policy making will get us anywhere.
In any case, with policies, there are other dangers as well. Sometimes, a policy can create many pitfalls such as a ‘one size fits all’ prescription. They can also bind us to a path that may need to be changed or corrected in the light of new learning.
None of the much vaunted institutions of learning — such as Harvard University, Stanford University and the Imperial College of Science, Technology and Medicine — have gotten where they have riding on the back of a centrally crafted policy. In fact, Harvard University began to acquire its hallowed aura only when the local government — in 1870 — relinquished control of the now famed university.
A personal achievement
The thing about good policies is that formulating them is like winning half the battle — the only thing left for the complete victory is to implement them. This brings me to the first — personal — reason why I am also delighted at, and therefore welcome, the Modi government’s NEP 2020.
As it so happens, most of the features that pertain to higher education in the NEP are a near verbatim reproduction of the essential features of the four-year undergraduate programme (FYUP) envisioned and implemented at the University of Delhi when I was its Vice Chancellor. I am thus quite enthused by the recommendations of the NEP.
I say this with much conviction because if implemented in the right manner, they should help bring about significant all-round improvement. The results and feedback from the time we ran the FYUP have strengthened our belief on its value and strength. Unfortunately, after an excellent run for a year, the FYUP was rolled back under a UGC directive that carried no justification.
However, and propitiously, what has gone largely unnoticed is the fact that we ran in parallel, and without interruption, an even more strengthened version of the FYUP at the Cluster Innovation Centre (CIC). That programme runs to this day. The CIC was created during my time as the Vice Chancellor under very airtight conditions, and it remained impervious to the assaults of the UGC.
CIC, a success story
The first bunch of graduating students have now spread their wings far and wide. They are not just employed at top corporate institutions such as Google but have also succeeded as entrepreneurs. There is much evidence from recent times. A United States and Delhi-based startup, Delightree, founded by two of our CIC graduates who sowed its seeds while still studying with us and who completed the four-year UG programme at the CIC, has raised $3 million from Accel and some other venture firms in the US.
Another very thriving startup is TNine Infotech — named after the classroom where it was conceived at the CIC. Equally heartening is the highly innovative startup, Precisely, which is being run successfully by the current students of the CIC in cooperation with some of its former students. The quality and amount of research papers produced by the undergraduate students has been very impressive. For instance, a number of currently enrolled students at the CIC have produced a mathematical model of the manner in which they expected the coronavirus to spread in India. Their model has so far predicted with more than 95 per cent accuracy the spread of the coronavirus in the country.
Word of advice
If implemented properly, we should expect nothing but good outcomes from the recommendations in NEP 2020 that pertain to higher education. However, a word of caution is in order. Not ensuring the spirit of the NEP vision can also cause a lot of harm. One of the most important of these dangers relates to the training and orientation of the teaching faculty.
The teaching staff in Indian universities have largely been schooled in the traditional manner and do not grasp the meaning and importance of trans-disciplinary education, project-based learning, and how knowledge can be linked to entrepreneurial activity. The NEP recommends establishing a National Professional Standards for Teachers by 2022 and their education, as reported by Hindustan Times, “will be gradually moved into multidisciplinary colleges and universities by 2030”.
Clearly, the NEP has all the ingredients of transforming India’s education system but implementation is the key. And therein lies the danger.
The author is the former vice-chancellor of the University of Delhi, a distinguished mathematician and an educationist. Views are personal.
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